A Conversation with Casey Leonard
Casey Leonard was reluctant to start driving horses, but the 35-year-old Illinois native is coming off back-to-back million-dollar seasons and will finish January as the leading driver at Maywood Park.
Leonard, who began driving regularly in 2009, is a third generation horseman. His late grandfather, Bud Leonard, is a member of the Illinois Harness Racing Hall of Fame and his father, Terry, is a longtime trainer and driver. Leonard got a business management degree (with a minor in supply chain management) at Western Illinois and worked for several years before joining his dad to work on their 100-acre farm/training center in Harvard, Illinois.
Last year, Leonard won 231 races and $1.62 million in purses. He was fourth in wins at Maywood Park and sixth at Balmoral Park. His biggest victory came in the $50,800 Cardinal Stakes for 3-year-old male pacers with Erv Miller-trained Crime Of Passion, but he also won five Illinois-bred stakes events with 8-year-old pacer Well To Do Guru, a horse trained by his dad.
In 2011, Leonard won 235 times, earned $1.38 million, and was third in the Maywood standings for victories. He won the $100,000 Su Mac Lad for 3-year-old male trotters with Joel Smith’s Fox Valley Arrow and the State Fair for 2-year-old filly pacers with Nelson Willis’ Sleazy Does It. He also captured a number of stakes and invitationals with Well To Do Guru, who won 13 of 26 starts and $217,354 for the season.
Leonard, who entered Thursday with 814 career wins, recently took time to speak with Harness Racing Communications’ Ken Weingartner.
HRC: You’re off to a nice start this year. What’s been the key to this first month?
CL: I’ve been driving a lot of good horses. I’ve been driving most of (trainer) Dave McCaffrey’s for the last few years and he’s off to a good start. I drive a couple for the leading trainer there, Angie Affrunti, and her horses are always classified and ready to go. Then my dad’s stable has been really strong so far. It’s just been a lot of nice horses and they’ve been in the right classes.
HRC: Do you set any goals coming into each year?
CL: No, not really. I’d like to be able to kind of be even at both tracks. My numbers, historically, have been a lot stronger at Maywood than Balmoral, but my numbers at Balmoral steadily improved last year. I would like to win 250 races in a year and preferably be around 125 at both tracks.
HRC: Why do you think you’ve had more success at Maywood?
CL: Probably the two biggest reasons are McCaffrey and my dad. McCaffrey races almost exclusively at Maywood and our farm is 40 miles closer to Maywood than Balmoral, so we’ve raced a lot more at Maywood. I think I just drive a lot more power at Maywood than Balmoral, but I think it’s starting to even out.
HRC: It doesn’t have anything to do with a preference for the half-mile (track) at Maywood?
CL: No, I’d say my style is better suited for the mile track; I’m not known as being very aggressive. I would think patience is more of a key at Balmoral. But it seems to be OK at Maywood to be able to race from off the pace compared to a lot of half-mile tracks.
HRC: It must be OK with the numbers you’re putting up.
CL: I’ve probably driven more on the front end this last month than I have normally. But it’s just the horses I’ve been driving and the classes they’re in. It’s a little easier to get the front when you’re on one of the favorites.
HRC: Your family has been involved in racing for a long time. Was this what you always wanted to do?
CL: No, I was totally in a different direction. I went to college and graduated and worked in warehousing and supply chain management and stuff. Then my uncle (Gary Leonard) passed away in 2000 and my dad asked me if I’d come back home and help with the farm. I wanted to just train horses, but a lot of drivers left (Chicago) like Andy (Miller) and Tony (Morgan) and Timmy Tetrick, so there was a lot of opportunities for drivers. I still didn’t want to do it; I was turning people away. But then I just couldn’t turn the money away and I started driving and it kind of snowballed.
HRC: Why didn’t you want to drive initially?
CL: I really liked training horses. I like to be home at night. I have a son (Cayden) and a wife (Maureen) and it’s not really all that conducive to a family life. I live 112 miles from Balmoral, so that’s three nights a week, and I live about 70 miles from Maywood, and that’s two nights a week. Those seem like nights off because it’s so much closer. But it’s tough; it’s a grind. Plus having a farm to take care of and we have a string of about 17 horses that we are either racing or getting ready to race. There’s a lot of stuff to be done in the course of a day.
HRC: Now that you’ve been driving more regularly, what do you most enjoy?
CL: When you get to drive good horses that you can tell are trying. Of course, I like to drive the super-fast ones and the stakes horses, but I really like driving the old claimers or condition horses that give it their all. I really like a horse that tries. It’s nice to drive horses that get it. Like our horse Well To Do Guru. He’s just a professional. He knows what he wants to do out there and he knows how to do it.
HRC: Mentioning Well To Do Guru, were those some of the highlights for you last year winning races with him and your dad?
CL: Absolutely. The last couple years with him, it’s kind of cool that he’s stayed that good. He was probably the spark that started the whole catch driving thing; at least got me noticed. Especially being able to drive him and keep him sharp for that many years.
HRC: What’s been the biggest highlight so far in your career?
CL: I won with one of Joel Smith’s trotters in the Su Mac Lad on Super Night. It was Fox Valley Arrow. I drove Sleazy Does It for a little while and she won a couple stakes races a couple years ago. That was a highlight. And Well To Do Guru, he’s been really good to me. It’s nice to have him in your own stable because you can drive him any way you like to and not according to how an owner tells you to drive him or a trainer tells you to drive him. You don’t have to worry about getting fired.
HRC: So does that mean you don’t listen to your dad?
CL: He’s a good trainer to drive for. He never really voices his opinion about how he thinks a horse should be driven.
HRC: What would you like to see happen in your future?
CL: I just want to keep making a living. I’d like to see Illinois be a little more secure as far as being able to keep racing here. I’d like to just stay in Illinois. I don’t see myself chasing harness racing across state lines to try to make a living. I’d prefer to stay here. I just want to make a living; I don’t want to be famous or anything like that. I enjoy racing in Illinois and I enjoy the trainers that I drive for.
HRC: Do you have any hobbies or things you like to do when you’re not racing?
CL: We’re going to go skiing. We used to ski a lot. My family used to go on ski trips every year. My wife has gotten into it. We’re going to go out to Utah and go skiing again. We haven’t done that in seven or eight years. My boy is going to be 6 this year and we took him skiing at one of the local hills. We’re kind of getting him into it. I just like to spend time with him and he keeps us pretty busy.
Harness Racing Communications
U.S. Trotting Association